Google Reader Goes Poof

The entire Internet, or rather a relatively small — yet significant — percentage of people raised their fists to the sky when Google announced that Google Reader would be discontinued in July of this year. I don’t know what the numbers were, but I can only assume the user basea is fairly significant, but not significant or important enough for Google to continue to support it. The product has stagnated, almost as much as Feedburner since its aquisition many years ago. The company had been unsuccessful at trying to direct more of its users to Google+ (by removing sharing features with a +1 button), their burgeoning social networking product, and thus I suppose felt no need to continue to offer it.

I remember back in the mid-90s, before the inception of RSS and Reader, I consumed news online by visiting my favourite websites directly. Even when RSS started to become widely adopted, for me, consuming news was not something I even considered doing via a mail client or RSS app that didn’t support syncing. RSS apps in the early 2000s were far and few between. Those that existed were pretty ugly until NetNewsWire came out for the Mac. Reader offered not just a fast syncing solution, but its simplicity and easy of use garnered the attention of not just technically inclined people, but also average computer users. The Reader web app was simple and clean. It didn’t require much in the way of figuring out how to get feeds into it. A few years after its launch, it cemented itself as the only solution most people would even think about using. Ubiquity had become key, but not so much in Google’s favour (they got nothing out of it monetary wise), but for the end-user as it meant an abundance of choice in the RSS app market.

I suspect every developer who sells an RSS app that relied on the (undocumeted) Google Reader syncing API, had a feeling of dread after this announcement was made. This means many people will need to go back to the drawing board to retool their apps — ultimately costing time and money for something that was not necessarily expected any time soon. I do see a positive aspect out of this event though, despite the lamentations heard everywhere by devout Reader users. Many have already announced that they’re working on new syncing solution, if not augmenting their existing apps and services with support to at least import your feeds from Reader. Services like Feedly are a prime example of nimble reaction taken from recent news. They now offer an easy way to bring in your feeds. On March 15th, they made an announcement that over 500,000 new users were added from Reader — that’s huge! Just think of how many other people are now jumping ship to other competitive services. Digg, another aggregate news service is commiting to building something akin to Reader.

Where I remain somewhat trepidatious is that with more people striving to build their own syncing platforms for RSS, we’ll end up with a mishmash of third party services that will not talk to each other (not good). The beauty of Reader, even though Google had not documented the API or made it official, was that it was the defacto standard upon which you would build a news reader. It was the go-to choice if you wanted a super fast and reliable way of syncing feeds, unread count, and unread statuses between devices and platforms. This is why I believe that developers should be collaborating to build an open and widely supported syncing solution. I would rather see something that is well documented and open source, something that anyone can build on and contribute back to. This would be benefit all parties, both developers and users alike. In the interim, Marco Arment recently proposed a simpler solution that could be more easily done today:

An obvious idea that many have proposed (or already implemented) is to make a new service mirror the (never-officially-documented) Google Reader API. Even if it also offers its own standalone API for more functionality, any candidates to replace Google Reader should mirror the fundamentals of its API.

You should really read his entire post for the details. He also cites:

Like it or not, the Google Reader API is the feed-sync “standard” today. Until this business shakes out, which could take years (and might never happen), this is the best way forward.

My sentiments exactly. We have all grown so comfortable over the years with using Google’s syncing service that it now will take a fair bit of work and collaboration to come up with a complete new solution to this. We need something now — not a year or two down the road.

Let’s face the facts — if you build a business off of someone’s API, there’s always a risk the rug could be pulled out from under you. I know a lot of people will be annoyed Reader is going away, but I believe their decision helps further align their goals with their business. With this being said, it’s equally importanat to state that a paid service doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’re protected by an impenetrable force field — thus preventing that service from ever going extinct. What a paid service does do, is pave the way for a potentially sustainable business model. The benefits are vast: more reliable support and future development, as well as less risk aversion to being sold or running out of venture capital funding.

It’s been a year now since I moved all of the services I relied on from Google to other third party providers. That meant moving my email, calendar, contacts, documents, and RSS feeds somewhere else. I’ve been happy with the progress I’ve made during this time. Admittedly I haven’t completely been able to avoid Google, but it’s not because I completely distrust the company. Some of their products like search still can’t be beat, not even by Bing or DuckDuckGo.

As an alternative to Reader, I switched to Shaun Inman’s Fever last year. I’ve been happily using it since then, in conjunction with Sunstroke, which is by far the best iOS client available. Fever is a self-hosted solution, and is definitely not for everyone. If hosting your own RSS server is not your cup of tea, I suggest taking a good look at NewsBlur. Not only does NewsBlur require no configuration, but they offer both an iOS and Android app to sate your various mobile OS desires. If you do however want to give Fever a go, I wrote a review last August that includes some information about how I set it up.